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July 08, 2015

Man accused of S.F. pier homicide pleads not guilty

A convicted felon who had been deported five times from the United States to Mexico pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to first degree murder in a San Francisco shooting that has spawned passionate debate about the city's immigration policies.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 45, was charged with murder on Monday for last week's apparently random shooting of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. The gun used in the shooting belonged to a federal agent, anonymous sources told the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Reuters could not immediately confirm the reports.

Sanchez denied guilt in English and Spanish several times during Tuesday's brief court hearing.

"He has a second grade education and many of the legal nuances and the legal ramifications that attend to the circumstances of this case are beyond his current comprehension," public defender Matt Gonzalez told reporters.

The case drew national attention after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cited the killing to decry U.S.-Mexico border security.

The incident also highlighted the long-standing "sanctuary city" policy in San Francisco, one of dozens of U.S. cities that limit assistance to federal immigration authorities aiming to apprehend or deport individuals.

Such laws were rooted in shielding Central and Southern American refugees from deportation in the 1980s.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee defended the policy as allowing immigrant families to access city services without fear of being reported to federal authorities, not as a shield for violent or repeat criminals.

He also called on local and federal authorities to review their actions leading up to Sanchez's release.

Still, the shooting spurred Republican state Senator John Stone on Tuesday to introduce a bill that would require California cities to detain undocumented immigrant prisoners for 48 hours to give federal immigration officials time to make deportation or prosecution decisions.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein said on Tuesday she was looking into possible federal legislation on the issue as well.

Immigration officials said Sanchez was released from federal prison in March after a felony re-entry conviction, then transferred to the San Francisco County Sheriff's Office on a drug arrest warrant. Federal officials asked to be notified prior to his release.

The sheriff's office said the drug charges were dismissed, and since there was no active warrant or judicial order for Sanchez's removal, the city's policy deemed Sanchez "ineligible for extended detention" and he was freed.

Sanchez's criminal history includes seven felony convictions, and he has been deported to Mexico five times, immigration officials said. His bail was set at $5 million. He is due back in court on July 22.

(Reporting by Emmett Berg and Curtis Skinner in San Francisco and Victoria Cavaliere in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Eric Walsh)